On January 10th, The Sleep Paralysis Project teamed up with Rich Pickings and London Short Film Festival to present a night of short film and discussion around sleep paralysis, and other parasomniac activity. The event played to a full house at Science Museum’s Dana Centre.
The evening kicked off with an introduction from Christopher French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London’s Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. Prof French talked about the causes and interpretations of sleep paralysis from both a scientific and cultural perspective, as well as discussing common symptoms of the experience itself.
“You’re in this state, you realise you can’t move, and you get a very strong sense of presence. You feel certain that there is someone, or something in the room with you and whatever that thing or person is they mean you no good at all. They’re evil, in some cases a pure evil…
Very often these episodes are associated with hallucinations. These might be visual (you might see lights moving around in the room, dark shadows, grotesque monstrous forms); they might be auditory (you might hear footsteps, or voices, or mechanical sounds); they might be tactile (you might feel as if you are being touched, or as if someone is holding you tightly, or as if someone is dragging you out of the bed. Sometimes these can turn into full blown out of body experiences.”
The next guest was Dr Paul Broks, a neuropsychologist and writer. Dr Broks read an extract from his 2003 book Into the Silent Land, which mixes neurological case stories, fiction and memoir was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. The reading – from a story called The Ghost Tree – focused on sleep paralysis and hypnogogic / hypnopompic hallucination, referencing Broks’ own experiences with the phenomena.
“I looked at my right arm and willed it to move. I commanded it to move. It stayed put. When I tried to sit up or roll over nothing happened. I panicked. On the inside I was a twisting fury, but the shell of my body remained motionless. I gave up the struggle, overwhelmed by an intuition that if I tried any harder I would break through the shell and float away…
I now recognise this as a lucid dream, an hallucinatory state in the hinterlands of slumber where the mind is alert, but the body remains bound by the paralysis of sleep — the intersection of dream life and reality.”
Dr Broks also read a piece from his forthcoming book. The story – The Messenger – examines the magical thinking which can surround bereavement, looking at the dynamic between superstitious and rational thinking, and how these thinking styles can co-exist.
The first film of the night was Hum, an animated short by Emily Howells & Anne Wilkins. Hum references the familiar rhythms and routines of night time and the monotonous cycle of insomnia, before introducing the heavy and strange presence of sleep paralysis. Co-director Emily Howells said of the film: “We wanted to create an immersive film, that would show the feeling of timelessness that our sleep patterns create. We focussed in on the strange and scary experience of sleep paralysis, it seemed to highlight the dark side of our dreams and the fear we universally share of the night demon or spirit. Sound plays a big part in our film, working alongside the imagery. As all becomes quiet we tune into the world around us and our own thoughts become jumbled. We had fun experimenting with mixed techniques, traditional drawn animation, film, painting on glass and stop motion. We hope if nothing else to make the viewer feel unsettled and even better a little scared!”
The next film screened was Droom, a surreal, visually rich interpretation of dream spaces from director Tim Grabham (iloobia), who introduced the film.
The final film in the first half of the event was Hypnogogia, an experimental animation made by Louise Wilde as her graduation film from Royal College of Art in 2002. The film is a personal documentation of the hallucinatory imagery related to the transition between sleeping and waking. Wilde’s aim was to create and convey a lasting kinaesthetic and psychologial experience of this condition for the viewer, through the use of manipulated frame-by-frame visual imagery and sound design. The result is immersive and unsettling.
The second half of the event began with a screening of Paul Vester’s classic animated documentary Abductees, which documents hypnotically recovered memories of people who believe they have been abducted by space aliens. The visuals are based on drawings by the abductees themselves.
Christopher French then returned to the stage to discuss the link between recovered memories of alien abductions and sleep paralysis. French talked about Bud Hopkins‘ theories on alien abduction, criticising Hopkins’ methods for gathering and interpreting information. Prof French built the case that many so-called abduction experiences are in fact rooted in sleep paralysis or narcoleptic symptoms.
“If you’ve had these experiences, and particularly if you’re having them on a repeated basis, and you’re thinking ‘I don’t understand it, I want an expaination’… if you then read one of these books by any of the self-proclaimed UFO experts you then think ‘That’s it! That’s what happened to me! That explains my experience!’ And you may think that what you should then do is try to recover that memory… so you go to see a hypnotherapist.”
Prof French questioned the validity of hypnosis as a method for uncovering repressed memories, suggesting that hypnosis environments in fact offer the ideal context for the production of false memories, in which patients recover the memories they expect to find rather than the truth.
The final guest for the night offered a very different perspective on sleep paralysis. David Morgan, a Psychoanalyst and Psychotherapist with over 20 years experience in private and NHS practice, discussed his experiences with patients who suffered from sleep paralysis and narcoleptic symptoms. David Morgan focused on interpretations of hallucinatory experiences, suggesting that the content of hallucinations can offer symbolic insights into the patient’s feelings.
“People take symbols from wherever they can… the dwarf, the hag – probably from fairy stories – represent an oppressive force keeping you down. Something in your mind that prevents you from being free.”
All the speakers returned to the stage at the end of the event for a lively Q&A in which the ideas and angles that had been heard throughout the event were chucked around, challenged, combined, added to and explored.
For more information on the Sleep Paralysis Project, visit www.thesleepparalysisproject.org
To keep on top of Rich Pickings’ events and activities, visit www.richpicks.org
Event photos by Rachel King
The Sleep Paralysis Project is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award.